THE PUBLIC EYE: Global Climate Change: A Blow to the Head

By Bob Burnett
Friday November 15, 2013 - 06:15:00 PM

As evidence mounts that global climate change is dramatically impacting our lives, resistance hardens. What will cause Americans to address this grave danger? Perhaps the answer lies in the campaign to reduce traumatic head injuries in American football. 

Both global climate change and football head injuries are controversial. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, there are many climate change deniers. In fact, denial is so heavily funded that it has stymied meaningful congressional action. Meanwhile, mainstream American lifestyle remains dependent upon consumption of carbon-based fuels: coal, natural gas, and petroleum. Americans suspect that rising temperatures and radical weather are caused by carbon consumption, but we are loath to change our behavior. 

Americans are also addicted to football, our most popular sport. The 32 National Football League (NFL) teams are the the most profitable in professional sports. Although American football has always been a violent sport, it wasn’t until recently that fans realized football causes traumatic brain injuries. There’s mounting evidence that many retired professional football players suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease also found in boxers. This past August, the NFL reached a tentative $765 million settlement with 18,000 retired players over their concussion-related brain injuries. The multi-million dollar settlement and a flood of CTE publicity led to calls to either abandon American football or to radically change its format – for example by banning participation by athletes under the age of 18. But football is so popular, and so lucrative, the sport has resisted attempts to alter its format. 

In both global climate change and football, there are humongous financial forces pitted against public safety. What might tip the balance towards the common good? 

Malcolm Gladwell’s classic book, The Tipping Point examines the ways in which emerging social phenomena mimic the growth of epidemics. Gladwell postulates three rules for successful trends: the law of the few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context. 

The law of the few is seen in the spread of new fashion, where a few early adopters of a particular style can affect a national shift in consciousness. For Global Climate Change, national awareness was shifted by Al Gore’s book and movie, An Inconvenient truth. With regards to football-related traumatic brain injuries, many sports fans became aware of CTE when famous retired football players such as Tony Dorsett and Jim McMahon joined the lawsuit against the NFL. 

Stickiness is the unique quality of a trend that enables it to grab hold of the public. Gladwell notes the slogan, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should,” convinced American smokers they should switch to a filtered cigarette, specifically Winston. For many Americans Al Gore made the “sticky” link between global climate change and extreme weather. Similarly, horrific stories of football players mental deterioration after retirement, such as that of hall-of-fame Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster established the sticky link between repeated blows to the head and CTE. 

But not every trend is successful. Gladwell acknowledged the role of context: if the timing is not right, the trend will stall. Americans are aware of global climate change but it’s not high on our list of national priorities – unless there’s a major weather event that impacts us. Similarly, the public is aware of CTE but there’s no groundswell to dramatically change American football. 

Money, used for contra advertising, can alter the context. Huge amounts of money have been spent to diffuse momentum that might have caused global climate change or traumatic football injuries to reach the tipping point. Climate-change deniers have planted a seed of doubt that there is a connection between climate change and extreme weather. The NFL has argued that CTE is an isolated phenomenon and the league is taking prudent steps to reduce the number of concussions. 

For both issues to move forward, the context needs to be altered. Many believe that the increasing prevalence of violent storms will be sufficient to shift opinion on global climate change. Similarly, as more evidence becomes available about CTE this may change opinion about football. But this shift may take a long time. In the intervening period, millions of people will be impacted by global climate change and thousands of men incapacitated by CTE. 

But, in both cases, the context could be shifted by the insurance industry. It cannot have escaped the notice of insurers that low-lying regions such as New Orleans or the Jersey Shore are increasingly susceptible to flooding from storms. Similarly, insurers must be aware of the increased number of concussions in high-school sports. If insurance companies raise premiums for homeowners or football programs , this will shift public opinion. 

In the long run, public sentiment about global climate change and football will be changed by the gradual accumulation of information. However, in the short term, insurance companies can provide the tipping point. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at